Cultural lies — or partial truths? David Brooks, individualism, and communitarianism

“We’ve created a culture based on lies,” David Brooks says, and they’re the roots of our political problems. Hence we need a cultural revolution more than a political one.

Brooks is the best columnist of our time. Always thoughtful and thought-provoking; not stereotypically “conservative.” A pet theme lately is individualism versus communitarianism. Brooks sees them as oppositional and advocates for the latter over the former. Thus his recent column about cultural “lies.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/opinion/cultural-revolution-meritocracy.html)

Western societies have indeed entered an age of individualism (“hyper-individualism” Brooks says). That was not an option for most people in most times, given social and economic constraints. Conformism reigned. Those bounds were loosened by Enlightenment humanism — recognizing that what life is really about is for each individual to achieve fulfillment in his or her own best way. And giving many at least conditions of life that free us to pursue that happiness.

I celebrate this. I live it. Blessedly enabled to enjoy a good life according to my own conception — idiosyncratic though it may be.

Is individualism at odds with communitarianism, as Brooks keeps arguing? It can be. He’s right that in some ways individualism can go too far and undermine the social foundation for truly living well. Case in point: an anti-vaxxer, privileging her belief of what’s good for her kid over society’s good. Giving us an epidemic of measles, previously thought eradicated.

But the word that keeps coming to my mind — absent from what Brooks says — is balance. Neither individualism nor communitarianism is wrong. Both are good. We must balance the two. Healthy balance is, indeed, itself key to a good life.

Much of my own seems quintessentially solitary. I’m scribbling this essay lounging alone out on my deck, soaking up sunshine. I love this. Likewise, my involvement with coins, also very solitary. But not solipsistic. Most of what I do would be devoid of meaning for me if not embedded in a world of other people. What confers meaning on my numismatic doings is other people ultimately appreciating the coins. I write to communicate ideas to others.

Such balanced perspective is missing from Brooks’s catalog of alleged cultural lies. Here are his headings: career success is fulfilling; I can make myself happy; life is an individual journey; keep your options open; you have to find your own truth; rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

The last is a no-brainer. But none of the others is a lie; rather, they are partial truths. Nuanced by, but not refuted by, what Brooks says about them.

For each he sacralizes the social, with individuation subordinated to it. It reads as though he wants us all to live like bees in a hive. As though the Enlightenment and mass individual empowerment never happened, or were bad things. And we should go back to the conformism imposed by past constraints.

“Find your own truth?” Fine if your name is Aristotle, Brooks dismissively says; we mostly get our values from our societal context. And of course that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Does Brooks seriously suggest thinking for oneself is never good? And “society” is always right? What about all those Germans who swallowed the values of Nazi society?

“Career success is fulfilling?” A lie? Brooks claims his making the best seller list “felt like . . . nothing.” Well — it wouldn’t have, for me, as an author, but maybe he’s a saint without an ego. But such success can admittedly be empty if that’s all there is to your life, with no human connectivity. No one on their deathbed says, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office,” yet most aren’t sorry they ever went. Many of us do get much fulfillment from work, it gives our lives meaning —  in great part precisely because of its larger social context. Utilizing our abilities productively is empowering, but we also feel we earn our pay because the work contributes to some greater good. Isn’t that the very thing Brooks urges on us?

Similar points apply to Brooks’s other “lies.” They’re not lies but partial truths — for each one he ignores something important.

The fact is that social life is integral to human existence. Just like bees evolved for hive life, we evolved for group life. However, there’s a lot more to us than to bees, and while community does fill needs for us, we also have needs as individuals. They’re not incompatible. We can strive to fulfill both.

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2 Responses to “Cultural lies — or partial truths? David Brooks, individualism, and communitarianism”

  1. Paul J Landsberg Says:

    Frank, another excellent piece. I agree and agree. I will generalize in that most Republicans I know pine for the days where the was more rule of Christianity in America. Conformity in religion drives the “us versus them narrative” and that leads to ………..oh…Trump. Of course add on heaping teaspoons of a population that believes the ends just if the means and you get where we are.

    As I think you are saying, boundless individualism is not good. Conversely, neither is infinite communitarianism. Actually, communitarianism in the extreme is ultra-tribalism.

  2. Lee Says:

    Balance is what is missing in modern political discourse. Each news organization faithfully reports the half of the news that fits the ends it seeks. Every major unsolved problem has at least two sides to the arguments but advocacy organizations only ever promote one side. Any politician who dares to push forward a compromise that asks everyone to give up a little ends up disliked by nearly everyone.

    As the Wonderful Wizard of Oz sings in Wicked:

    A man’s called a traitor or liberator
    A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist
    Is one a crusader or ruthless invader?
    It’s all in which label is able to persist
    There are precious few at ease
    With moral ambiguities
    So we act as though they don’t exist

    We need to listen to multiple disparate news sources, multiple advocacy groups, and, when compromises are put forth, work to improve them rather than simply using some negatives as an excuse to ignore them.

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